Understanding Singapore - is it a tourism utopia or police state?

Red building in Singapore

After spending a week under its spell, we ask - Is Singapore utopia or a police state?

The air is thick and tropical, blanketing us in heat as we wait to cross at a busy Singapore intersection. Green, orange, red. The traffic lights above us slow the heavy stream of traffic to a stop. Knowing the pedestrian lights will soon turn green in our favour, we step lazily into the crossing.

Seeing us move, the businesswoman across the street also takes one, two steps forward, before suddenly snapping her eyes upwards and coming to an abrupt stop. We follow her gaze up, discovering not just one, but an entire bank of surveillance cameras above us, filming every conceivable angle of the intersection - including us.


We had arrived at the steamy Changi airport in late November, weary after an 8-hour flight across the heart of Australia. It was the first stop on our year-long adventure, and our priority was to clear customs and struggle to our air-conditioned hostel as quickly as possible so the real adventure could begin.

Passports stamped, we hauled our huge backpacks onto our shoulders and made our way slowly towards the MRT subway signs. There was an element of dread in this, knowing that trying to navigate a new transport network right now could be disastrous while we’re exhausted. When we run down the steps just in time to see the MRT’s tail lights disappear around the bend, our fears are confirmed and we settle in for a long wait to the next one. Or so we thought.


See, this is where our first brush with ‘perfect Singapore’ happens.

Turns out, the driverless system is efficient beyond belief, and regular city services run every few minutes. Just two minutes later we were on board a quiet, clean, durian-free (seriously, there’s a $500 fine!) carriage, en route to our hostel. The journey was comfortable, easily navigated thanks to clear signage, and well, basically just… perfect.

the MRT (mass rapid transit) in Singapore

But we soon discovered that it’s not just Singapore’s MRT system that runs perfectly. The entire city runs so seamlessly and efficiently that it seems like a true urban dream. The streets are beautifully clean, without any sign of food scraps, rubbish, or unsightly gum stains (chewing gum is banned here). The four major ethnic quarters (Chinese, Malay, Arab, Indian) seem to exist in a respectful and harmonious balance (at least, to our tourist eyes), while the many world-class attractions (hello, Gardens by the Bay!), endless shopping stops, and tasty street food keep us happily entertained for the whole week.

We feel safe, never having to check our pockets or over our shoulders after dark in the city. It’s almost impossible to get lost considering all the streets are signposted in English. The public notice signs have us feeling all fuzzy with their inclusive language (“let’s work together to keep the streets clean!”, “Give up our seat on the MRT to someone who needs it more than you do!”, “together, we will open this train station in 2017”).

Singapore just seems to have it all; a temperate 28c climate, low unemployment rates, efficiency, interesting sights, and a society that promotes tolerance and kinship. Surely, we think, this is a gleaming steel and glass example of a harmonious modern-day utopia. A carefree and pleasant society, where everything is looked after for you. 

a man observing the streets from his window in Singapore
A woman exploring Chinatown, Singapore
the interior of Marina Bay sands hotel Singapore

But waiting to cross the street just three days into our trip, it’s that one glance - like a glitch in the matrix - from the woman across the street to the bank of cameras above that dents the armour of this perfect society.

As the lights finally changed to green and the swarm of people began to cross, it dawned that we’d seen these banks of cameras everywhere. In the MRT, in shopping malls, public areas, hotels entrances. Our every move, tracked by a mechanical pair of eyes.

I turn to Mark and whisper “I feel like we’re in Orwell’s 1984..”, and the look on his face tells me he agrees. Big brother is watching.

Is singapore utopia
A man walking in front of a building in Singapore

If you escaped school without coming across the novel, 1984 imagines an advanced dystopian society called Oceania (formerly Great Britain), where Big Brother and the Party use fear and surveillance to scrutinise their citizens. They alter history in their favour, overwhelm the citizens with a barrage of propaganda via Telescreens in every room, and replace English with Newspeak, a language designed to suppress a person’s ability to even think negatively about the Party by removing words.

We should probably pause here and make it very clear that we don’t think Singapore has descended into a futuristic dystopia controlling the people through TV screens, and we definitely didn’t see any people speaking Newspeak! But there are definitely some striking parallels.

Like the fictional country of Oceania, which exists in a bubble, Singapore seems obsessed with being a fully independent state that doesn’t rely on its powerful neighbours. During our visit, there's a lot of talk about developing their self-sufficiency and cutting reliance on countries like Malaysia, and it seems they're committed considering they achieved water independence in June 2016.

Then there are the cameras. So many cameras. Once we notice them, we can’t quite shake the paranoid sensation that someone is following us a few steps behind. And it does seem as though a culture of fear underpins the city-state; more than once we spot people hiding their faces against a wall with their backs to the CCTV cameras, trying to sneak a cigarette in a no-smoking zone. Later, we learn that practically the whole city is divided into no-smoking zones, so this law-breaking is somewhat of a necessary evil for the nicotine-addicted.

After our encounter with the lady crossing the street, we realised that no one - and we mean no one - crosses in the wrong place or against the lights here. It’s a weird phenomenon coming from Australia, where ‘jaywalking’ is pretty much just an alternative term for ‘I crossed the street’ (we’re a rebellious bunch, us Aussies!), and it definitely takes us (read: Mark) some getting used to.

Overwhelmingly, most Singaporeans seem friendly but obedient and disciplined. Although, if we grew up in a place where you could be fined for feeding pigeons or not flushing a public toilet, caned for vandalising property, and put to death for being involved with illicit drugs, I guess we’d be pretty obedient too. In a sign that it has traits of being a borderline police state, freedom of speech isn’t really a thing here either. The only pocket of the city where people can freely express themselves or demonstrate is the Speakers Corner - and even then there are rumours that the security department often films these in order to identify dissident citizens. It’s probably not too surprising that in 2012, the country was ranked as the ‘most emotionless in the world’.

housing apartments in Singapore - is Singapore utopia
Is Singapore utopia?

But are all of these things reason to strike Singapore straight off your travel list? Well… no. Truth be told, we actually love this bustling city. For locals, expats, and travellers alike it’s clean, modern, safe and on the surface at least, generally happy. What’s not to love about a city that boasts Hawker halls full of deliciousness, harmonious multiculturalism, effortless transport, and a balmy mid 20c temperature every day?

Despite the restrictions on some personal freedoms (and unlike 1984), Singapore has managed to create a society where every citizen actually has the opportunity to live comfortably and thrive -of course, as long as you’re prepared to play by the rules. For the most part, the restrictions stem from a desire to protect and promote citizens, which sets it apart from other countries with a similarly strict party ruling. It’s certainly not perfect by any stretch (even if the government would have you think differently), but for a country that was little more than a colonial port city 70 years ago, it’s an impressively well-functioning place.

Is living in a totally worry-free society worth the sacrifice to your small personal choices? We’re not sure. Will we be back again? Absolutely - but we’ll be sure to wait till the lights turn green before we cross any streets.

Is Singapore utopia? Or did you find it a police state best missed? Let us know in the comments below.


is singapore utopia?

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